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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Fishy Bread-Spread Boosts Kids' Brains

South African researchers find a substantial boost in verbal test scores among kids served bread with a fish-based spread

by Craig Weatherby

Encouraging clinical results add to the growing pile of evidence that the omega-3 fats unique to fish help kids' brain performance and health.

(For background and relevant links, see “Child Benefits of Fish Affirmed in Large Study”.)

Key Points

  • Clinical trial found that a fishy spread raised kids verbal test scores significantly and consistently.
  • Test spread provided a weekly dose of omega-3s comparable to the omega-3s contained in two moderately fatty fish.
  • Results affirm prior findings that linked higher fish intake by children and pregnant mothers to peak brain performance.

These results serve to underscore the urgent need to redress the well-documented shortage of omega-3s in the diets of kids in America and worldwide.

(Alaska's fishing industry does its part by donating countless cans of wild salmon to nutrition-deprived people and countries annually.)

The newly published study was conducted by an experienced research team based at the Medical Research Council of South Africa (Dalton A et al. 200)

This trial tested the learning and brain-performance effects of feeding children aged 7 to 9 a special omega-3 “fish-spread” during 104 school days.

The main ingredients of the fish-spread were fish fat, wheat flour, and red palm oilwith a small amount of canola oil.

In the placebo spread served to the control group, the fish fat was replaced with plain wheat flour, but there were some short-chain omega-3s in the oil it contained.

The fish-spread contained substantial but moderate amounts of the two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) essential to brain, eye, and immune health, which are found only in fish and other aquatic life.

Of these two omega-3s, DHA is the one essential to brain and eye development. In fact, DHA constitutes 60 percent of all of the fatty acids in our fat-heavy brains, and is essential for optimal memory, mood, and cognition.

The placebo spread had far less long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), but some of the short-chain, plant-derived omega-3 called ALA, a small percent of which the body can convert into long-chain omega-3 DHA and EPA.

When the six-month study period was over, the kids in both groups took three standard verbal tests, and the fish-spread group showed significantly better scores on all of them.

In their conclusions, the authors speculate that the “…cumulative benefits from prolonged ingestion of [omega-3] DHA may eventually, over time, have a positive effect on the school performance and general health of children.”

Study details

The authors enrolled 183 school children, and divided them into two groups for the duration of the six-month study (Dalton A et al. 2009).

Children in both groups received two slices of bread per day, served with either the special omega-3 fish-spread, or a plain spread without any added fish oil.

Importantly, the researchers took blood samples at the beginning and end of the study, so that they could compare the omega-3 levels of both groups to their test scores.

The fish-spread group scored nine percent better on a verbal learning test, 20 percent better on a verbal discrimination test, and marginally better on a spelling test.

The fish-spread provided about 192mg of omega-3 DHA and 82mg of omega-3 EPA (274mg DHA+EPA).

In terms of average daily omega-3 intake, the fish-spread provided 127mg of DHA + 55mg of EPA (182mg EPA+DHA) over six months.

This average daily intake added up to a “dose” of 892mg of DHA per week… an amount roughly equal to the DHA provided by two 3.5 oz servings of moderately fatty fish (i.e., species leaner than tuna or salmon).

In contrast, the plain, fish-free spread served on the control group's bread provided less than 20 percent (one-fifth) this amount of omega-3s (166mg of DHA per week).

The researchers noted that they could not be absolutely certain that other factors didn't influence the kids' test scores.

But compared to the control group, the fish-spread group developed substantially higher omega-3 blood levels during the study,

As they wrote, this suggests that “...the improvements in cognitive scores were mainly due to the [fish-derived omega-3s]”.

It's long past time that children's omega-3 blood levels were tested regularly, with omega-3 foods or supplements prescribed as needed.


  • Dalton A, Wolmarans P, Witthuhn RC, van Stuijvenberg ME, Swanevelder SA, Smuts CM. A randomised control trial in schoolchildren showed improvement in cognitive function after consuming a bread spread, containing fish flour from a marine source. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Feb-Mar;80(2-3):143-9. Epub 2009 Feb 6.
  • Dunstan JA, Simmer K, Dixon G, Prescott SL. Cognitive assessment of children at age 2(1/2) years after maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy: a randomised controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2008 Jan;93(1):F45-50. Epub 2006 Dec 21.
  • Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet. 2007 Feb 17;369(9561):578-85.
  • Vaisman N, Kaysar N, Zaruk-Adasha Y, Pelled D, Brichon G, Zwingelstein G, Bodennec J. Correlation between changes in blood fatty acid composition and visual sustained attention performance in children with inattention: effect of dietary n-3 fatty acids containing phospholipids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1170-80.